The third episode in this continually compelling series focuses on one of the most fundamental and astounding wonders of the universe: a mysterious force that, despite being one of the weakest found in nature, is a creator of stars and a relentless destroyer of worlds: not Simon Cowell, but gravity.
Professor Brian Cox takes us through Newton’s principles of the forces of attraction and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, using a variety of techniques, locations and experiences to demonstrate them. Rocks and sand in the desert illustrate the erratic, elliptical orbit of the planet Mercury; mountains and valleys explain the effect of gravity on space-time; and, to give us a general overview of the power and potential of gravity, the ever-willing Professor experiences weightlessness in a modified Boeing 727 in the company of more excitable floaters than were seen during the last General Election.
However, the most enthralling sequence shows Brian strapped into a 1950s centrifuge, which spins him around at great speed to allow him – and by extension, us – to experience the gravity of other worlds. Neptune (1.5 times our gravity) and Jupiter (2G) are tolerable, but spinning around at 5G has a profound effect on him, both internally and externally. The world around him goes foggy, he can’t lift his hands and – worst of all, if you’re a fan of his looks – the gravitational forces pull at his face until he resembles an aging Leonard Nimoy.
‘You looked a little different,’ the scientist in control of the centrifuge remarks understatedly at the end of the experiment when, thankfully, Brian is restored to normal for a trip to New Mexico and the former home of the Charcoan civilisation. The Charcoans were an ancient culture of sky watchers who, exactly 712 years before the thirteen American states announced they were no longer part of the British Empire, celebrated Independence Day by watching a magical cosmological event in the heavens above them: a star going supernova and dying, leading ultimately to the formation of a black hole.
Critics of Wonders Of The Universe have attacked the use of continental trips like this in the series, condemning what they perceive to be an excessive outlay by the BBC that could have been put to better use elsewhere. However, these critics are as full of dust and gas as the universe itself. Yes, money has very obviously been spent on the series – but this is a programme as spectacular as the best science-fiction; as gripping as the best drama; and at times, more moving than any soap opera can hope to be. It’s history, geography, art and romance all at the same time, and it’s worth every penny that has been invested in it.
Oh yes, it’s about science, too. It’s as educational and informative as any primetime programme will be this year. A black hole – hey, science! – will truly be left in the schedules when this wonderful story comes to an end.
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 20th March 2011 on BBC Two.